Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

In praise of abundance

rose petals, orchids
Originally uploaded by joguldi.
How do you fixate upon joy instead of loss, if not by constant application to the joys nearest at hand? Dearest reader, how shall I tell you how many times today the city offered me another meditation on joy, how many strange eyes, bizarre coincidences, happy children, unsuspected nuances, restless happy shades, passed me in the course of sixteen waking hours. This series issued directly from the pavement:

* a satchel bag of the Madonna for sale
* pineapples for $1.99 ea
* a plastic bag full of rose petals between the orchids

(think, reader: someone will be buying rose petals today, scattering them over a garden, a table, a lover...?)

My life is so full, so full, so full.

Reader, notice how the world pulses with abundance around you.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Getting Ready for Burning Man

Are you ready for Burning Man?

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Zygmunt Bauman on the San Francisco dating scene

Ok, not really, he's actually writing about advanced capitalism.  But you'd never know:

What follows is that the assumed temporariness of partnerships tends to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If the human bond, like all other consumer objects, is not something to be worked out through protracted effort and occasional sacrifice, but something which one expects to bring satisfaction right away, instantaneously, at the moment of purchase – and something that one rejects if it does not satisfy, something to be kept and used only as long as (and no longer than) it continues to gratify – then there is not much point in ‘throwing good money after bad’, in trying hard and harder still, let alone in suffering discomfort and unease in order to save the partnership. 

Even a minor stumble may cause the partnership to fall and break down; trivial disagreements turn into bitter conflicts, slight frictions are taken for the signals of essential and irreparable incompatibility. 

As the American sociologist W. I. Thomas would have said, were he to witness this turn of affairs: if people assume their commitments to be temporary and until further notice, these commitments do tend to become such in consequence of these people’s own actions.

Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 2000, p 164. 

The bad news is that you probably can't escape being used for instant gratification, being treated to the irritability of friends and loved ones, being blown off for no reason at all.  The good news is that it isn't your fault.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Labyrinth ethics

On the door to my bedroom I have an emblem from one of the c17 collections, showing a labyrinth, with the legend, “there is no coming to the One with one jump, and none without going about.”  My Goethe/Faust theology is very much engaged with this notion of ethics as synthesis of a culture – rather than as an external, objective, kantian or platonic judgment on that culture.  What does it mean to decide once and for all that the expert psychologists and political philosophers have not and cannot tell one which life is the one most worth living?  Where does one go? 

So I’ve been reasoning that there ought to be a natural ethics of the labyrinth.  

My instinct has been to approach the problem from a post-feminist point of view, which means proceeding from the following premises:

  •  Survival depends on taking different identities in different situations: sometimes masculine, sometimes feminine.   The meanings of these terms themselves will change in every location. 
  • Learning about new forms of discourse, new rules, other classes’ ways of doing things is costly, sometimes fatal; but there is no equation for calculating the cost.  Which does not mean that the roll of the dice will always come out favoring one as much as another: but rather that there is to be no expertise for this endeavor other than those who have experienced by trial and error
  • Failing to engage the rules of each location means failing to adequately express oneself; it means an end to the possibility of flourishing, of self-expression, of possibilities for one’s own identity.  

So I want to argue that there are other ethical systems: one that involves respect for the engagement of the labyrinth; following the path through different locales, wandering where it goes, noting every nuance of engagement.  There’s an ethics of extending the scope of one’s engagement.

But in true relativistic fashion, I don’t want to end ethics there.  There are individuals particularly badly disposed to travel, from upbringing or disposition or rough weather.  These individuals can themselves find infinite engagement with a single locale: translating for strangers, bringing justice or love or fellowship out of their language.  But their calling is fundamentally different.  So the ethics may be as well: the honesty demanded of the primary location, the negotiation and translation with the self slipping into infinite slippages demanded of the traveler.

So Bauman got me there: Liquid Modernity comes up with no decisive answer on the problem of ethics, but he uses sociology to filter out a number of inconsistencies in advanced liberal politics.  Primary among these is the notion of community, best understood through another spatial metaphor — the strict boundary between self and other; the rough ejection of all those who don’t belong.  

I think the labyrinth/epic metaphor brings us closer to unwrapping that problematic: inherently its identity is about expanding, translating, renegotiating identity, and with it renegotiating all the principles and languages and symbolic forms through which ethics is expressed.  Shall we nail down a set of ethical principles that transcends all the spaces the wanderer may encounter?  That would defeat the purpose of wandering.  But we can talk about mapping, and the principle of sharing maps; and we can also allow for a definition of ethics within the spheres we have already visited.  An open ethics.  Allowing for a conversation with the labyrinth-wanderers and other vagrants.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

A Wilderness in Your Heart

The Ballad of Meriwether Lewis and Esmeralda Biggott
A short farce in one act

[Boy and girl are sitting at a café.]

Boy: what’s that you’ve got there?
Girl: huh?
Boy: I said, that looks like a map.
Girl:  it is a map.
Boy: hey, that looks like a real honest-to-god atlas!
Girl: (annoyed) so what if it is?
Boy: you know I work with maps too…
Girl: (patronizingly) All right.  You work with maps.  What kind of maps would those be.
Boy:  well I just came back from the Pacific territory,
Girl: ::stares::
Boy: and right here in my messenger bag I have our draft
Girl: Give me that!
[looks at map, which looks like it has been executed in crayon]
how did you end up working on this project?  This was going to be my project!
Boy: Well, President Jefferson and the body that would one day become the Army Corps of Engineers sent me, I’m actually not a cartographer, not like you anyway…
Girl: you’ve ruined everything! these are incredibly imprecise calculations too.  You’ve stolen my idea and you’ve made a hack out of it.
Boy: but I didn’t know, it wasn’t my idea to go,
Girl: I can’t believe I didn’t know about this project.
Boy: I could tell you about it,


[Boy and girl have been kissing on a bench
The girl turns away and stands up]

Girl: I don’t know about this
Boy: what’s there to – I just hoped it would make you happy
Girl: what makes you think that you should even be here?
Boy: but I think I like you, I saw you,
Girl: we don’t even have anything in common.
Boy: but the café, the map, I thought
Girl: lots of people like maps.  You don’t know anything about me.
Boy: how many girls even know how to read a map?
Girl: I’m not the first one in the history of the world.
Boy: look I may not have a fancy education like you but at least I’ve been some places.  I’ve actually explored the areas, not just plotted them on a piece of paper so that they could become useless in some library where nobody but old farts would ever look at them
Girl: ::silent::
Boy: I could have had lots of girls, I’m choosing you because I think you’re special.  I looked first so I saw it first.  You haven’t seen how special I am, but I can see how special you are, so I’m here, and you ought to look at that. 
Girl: I’m looking and I’m not seeing anything
Boy: ::silent::
Girl: I didn’t mean it like that
Oh God, I’m sorry.
Boy: never mind.
Let’s talk about something else. 
Did you ever hear the joke about the cormorant?
Girl:  Meriwether, sometimes people just aren’t right for each other. 
You seem like a fine catch and all.  Maybe I’m just not attracted to you.
Boy:  ::silent::
Okay, I’m going out for a walk. 


[A kitchen.  Boy and girl have been cooking.]

Girl: You still seem down.  What’s wrong with you anyhow?  Why aren’t you happy?
Boy: I’m just not doing well, okay? 
Girl: Most boys when they’re after a girl are all sunshine and happiness.  I don’t know why you think gloom is a strategy for success.
Boy:  I’m thirty-one and I’m a complete failure.  What have I accomplished?
Girl: but you found the Northwest Passage!  Explorers have been looking for centuries…
Boy: there is no Northwest Passage.  I proved that there is no Northwest Passage.  Thanks to me the world is at least ten percent less glamorous, less of a wilderness, and less full of possibility than it was before.  I mean think about it.  I was the first to pave this way into the great Pacific Northwest, and when millions of white people start following the path I laid out, they’ll strip the wilderness bare, kill all the buffalo, and poison the native population.  Some great endeavor. 
Girl: but you went to all these unknown territories.  You know first hand what I only know about in theory.
Boy: You could have made up all the coordinates just as well without me.  You were doing it anyway.
Girl: but the map will be so much better with your data
Boy:  anybody could shovel in more data.  A freaking computer could’ve done what I did.
Girl:  but we don’t have computers yet!
Boy:  then you could’ve gotten yourself another explorer.  The US Army could’ve gotten itself ten other explorers.   
Girl: but I’m doing this for all of us.  Maps are something we do together.  One person explores and the rest find out.  We all celebrate together.  It’s an accomplishment. You could become a national hero.  You represent everything we think an American should be
Boy: some celebration.  If I’d broken my neck at Missouri Falls no one would have shed a single tear.
Girl: the eggs are burning.
Boy: I’m not hungry any more. 
Girl: would you help me with the darn eggs.
Boy:  You do something about the eggs.  I’m not hungry. 


They are chatting by phone.  They are looking for the same point on each of their maps. 

“Do you see the place between the Columbia River and Haystack Rock that looks like the snout of a Boar?”
“It looks like the nose of a lion to me”
“No, that’s the bay one dip to the north”
“I think you’re looking at the wrong place.”
“I don’t know what I’m looking at.”
“So look at Haystack Rock, and then count one, two, three bays to the north.”
“Got it.”
“See?  It doesn’t have a name yet.”
“I will call it Esmeralda Cove, after you.”
“I’m putting it down as Cape Disappointment.”
“Because I’m so disappointing?”
“Because I’m in a state of disappointment.”
“Why on earth are you a disappointment?”
“Because I’m disappointed that I can’t even make a map by myself.  I needed someone else to help me with it.”
“That’s not being a disappointment.  That’s just getting along well with other children.”
“I just don’t want you to be disappointed in me when you find out what I’m like.”
“Well don’t get your hopes up, I’m not planning to.”
“Get to know me?”
“Be disappointed.”
“Cape Disappointment looks like a nice bay.  I’d like to go there one day.”
“Maybe you will.”
“Maybe you’ll take me.”
“Maybe I will.”

We see that they are actually looking at two different bays entirely.


[Boy and girl enter slamming a door behind them]

Boy:  You think you’re so hot.  I could have gotten any girl in the world and here you are on your high horse
Girl: Yeah, who told you that, some barmaid?
Boy: Um, yes…
Girl: Then good luck with your barmaid
Boy: Only the sexiest barmaid in all of San Francisco where the girl-boy ratio is one to twenty (muttering) and after she kneed Clark she held my hand and said I could have had any girl in the world.   (aloud) It doesn’t matter I’m just saying, you think you’re such a catch.  But maybe you’re just missing what’s in front of you.
Girl: I suppose you had dozen of Indian lovers too
Boy: as a matter of fact
Girl: that’s disgusting
Boy: Don’t say that!  You’re such a bigot.
Girl: But they’re dirty and brown.
Boy: let’s not talk about it, okay?
Girl: What did you do, become engaged to an Indian chieftess?
Boy: She was a chieftan’s sister, not a chieftess.  They have medicine women, but not chieftesses. 
Also she was married when we met, so we couldn’t become engaged. 
Girl: oh my God, you’re talking about Bird-woman, aren’t you?  Wasn’t she the alcoholic’s wife?
Boy: I don’t think I want to talk about this any more. 
Girl: that’s so crazy.  Nobody had any idea that you were in love with Bird-woman.  Really, the whole trip?
Boy: Look, I’m sorry I brought it up.  Can we please change the subject?
Girl: Well tell me about her
Boy: did I ever tell you about when we shot the first cormorant? 


[Girl is crying]

Boy: I didn’t want things to end up this way
Girl: but you ruined everything.   My career is ruined because of you.  And now you’re famous and I’m a disaster.  And now you’re leaving. 
Boy: I’m not leaving.  I’m just different.  Anyway it wasn’t my plan, it’s not like I planned this.
Girl: you don’t even know what you want.  You never know what you want.
Boy: look, it seemed like a good idea at the time.  Cute boy, cute girl.  It seemed like it should work on paper.  It just didn’t work out. 
Girl: ::sobbing silently::
Boy: do you want anything?  Can I tell you a joke or something to cheer you up?
Girl: ::sobbing::
Boy: ::silent::
Oh for Pete’s sake.  You aren’t even trying.
Girl:  ::blows her nose:: anyway forget you and your stupid I-could-have-any-girl-in-the-world adventure stories.  That’s one thing.  The map’s another thing.  How dare you ruin my career.
Boy:  What do you mean?  It’s not my fault.  It’s not like I tried to ruin your career. 
Girl: of course you planned it.  You plan everything.  You’re a cartographer.
Boy: stop it.  Stop it!  What do you even want from me?
Girl: I just wanted another cartographer to talk to.  And now you’re doing the project I wanted to do, and you’re doing it without me.
Boy: pull yourself together.  Only you can be responsible for yourself. 
Girl: I can’t do it alone.  What do I know?  I’ve never even been anywhere.  I just put the points on paper.  You’re the explorer.  I just write down what you tell me.
Boy: I tried to tell you things.  I tried to tell you everything.  I tried to warn you.
Girl: that you broke girls’ hearts.  You didn’t warn me that you ruined their careers and stole their maps.  I didn’t ask to have your babies, I just wanted to make a map with you.
Boy: but that’s what we did
Girl: until you stopped working on it with me and started working on your own without telling me and then I didn’t have a map of my own any more
Boy: but we had fun while it lasted
Girl: and then you stopped having fun on me
Boy:  Like you didn’t want it.
Girl: Now they’re saying that my map is wrong.  Sailors are getting killed every time they try to sail up the mouth of the Columbia River; their boats get wrecked on the sand bars.  They’re blaming everything on me.
Boy: that’s not my fault.  I measured everything as well as I could.
Girl: I thought we had so much in common, I thought things were going to work out
Boy: it turns out we don’t really get each other at all, do we?
Girl: but you told me
Boy: a lot of things.  I guess I said a lot of things
Girl: lied to me.  you lied from the very beginning
Boy: I didn’t know what was going on then.  I didn’t know what you were like.  I didn’t know that you weren’t everything I wanted.
Girl: what I’m like.  do you know now?
Boy: you’re not everything I ever wanted.
Girl: do you know what’s going on now?
Boy: how would I, how would I know if I knew?
Girl: do you know somebody else, who else would know?
Boy: know what?  I don’t even know who you are
Girl: you were, you’re the one who wanted me
Boy: I am, I don’t even know who I am.


[boy is standing in the shadows.  We can only see his feet.]

Boy: I came like you asked.  If you want to talk to me, talk to me.
Girl: why are you standing in the shadows?  I can’t see your face
Boy: I like it in the shadows.
Girl: come out and talk to me.  you’re acting like a child.
Boy: you never even gave me a chance,  you never even tried to get to know me.
Girl: but I wanted to, I just
Boy: maybe we’re just not right for each other.  Can’t you just accept that we’re not right for each other?
Girl: but you don’t even know me
Boy: I guess that’s right
Girl: but I want you to know me!
Boy: I’ve been here and I’ve had people try to change my mind on things like this before and it’s never worked out.  I’m not going to have my mind changed. 
Girl: you’re just saying that because you’re afraid of being wrong, you’re afraid that you don’t have all the answers, and you’re not even willing to go deeper to find out the answers.  As if finding out how much we had in common were scarier than all the Cheyenne scalping parties put together. 
Boy: I’m saying that because I’m telling you where I’m going
Girl: you’re afraid of dating another cartographer.  You’re afraid you might have to compete with her.  You’re afraid of having your readings challenged.  You won’t risk learning something new from her, because you’re just too scared of not being Mr. Manly Adventurer all the time.
Boy: I just don’t want to be with you.  At least right now.  Okay?  This is 1806 and we haven’t even invented second-wave feminism yet. 
Girl: but we had so much in common.  You like maps; I like maps, you like –
Boy: but you never really know the depth of landscape from a map.
Girl: but we were had just started looking
Boy: I’ve made up my mind
Girl: looking at it together
Boy: you never really looked close enough at me
Girl: but we were trying together.  Trying’s just like a map, you try plotting things out
You add one little bit of information and then another bit, we were going to keep plotting and learning --
Boy: I’ve had it with maps.  I’m going to invent another kind of map entirely, a map that’s going to go dark in all the regions where the trail disappears or the fields get covered in shadows from the passes. 
Girl: what good would that do?
Boy: it’d give people more realistic expectations, for a start.  People think that just because you can send an explorer out you can learn everything there is to learn about the wilderness. 
Girl: I don’t even know what you’re talking about.
Boy:  And then it turns out you don’t know anything about wilderness.  You know where the points are and you get confident.  That’s why your sailors are dying.  A map can’t tell you where the sands are.  We had guides who grew up there.  The map just makes you over-confident and then all these East Coast boys sail in fast and their ship gets rafted and they blame you, Esmeralda.  It’s not your fault.  It’s the same with the human heart. People think you can learn everything there is to know.  I don’t even know where the passes are in my own heart.  How the heck am I supposed to tell other people about it? 
Girl: you asked me where I was coming from, I just wanted to
Boy: It’s only safe where things haven’t been mapped.  I don’t want anyone to know where I am. 
Girl: but you told me
Boy:  I’m through with telling people where I’ve been.  I’m going to invent a kind of map that eats itself.
Girl: but you gave me a map, you told me, I thought…  together…
Boy: ::walking away:;

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Jo in Wilderness

You might understand or not, but I write farce because I'm not convinced I have a handle, let alone a monopoly, on the truth. The above farce represents an apology for many things the author has said and done, and any similarity between characters in the farce and people real or imagined is completely intentional. For a fuller apology, give me a phone call.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Modern Heroism

I’m somewhere up the Pacific northwest coast, Lewis and Clark territory, looking at old maps and reading sociology.

Zygmunt Bauman is the prophet of new forms of capital, work, and identity.  In Liquid Modernities he defines the modern individual as trapped inside a web of uncaring, unplanning, antisocial networks much as the visitor to the trailer park is supposed to bring his own entertainment, appliances, home, and expectations, not to interact, not to stay, and certainly not to threaten authority.  Advanced liberalism is experienced through a cycle of isolation, dread, and denial, where truly shared experiences are a form of self-deception.  

For Bauman, each of the institutions supposed to liberate the individual to pursue greater realms of individual expression -- everything from education to critical theory; psychology and identity politics alike -- only confirm for the individual that there is nothing he/she can do to change the mind of the great social structures that have held her/him from his/her birth.  S/he is locked inside the cell of his/her own self.  Therapy only confirms that what s/he dreads is true: we really are that alone.  In a brilliant exegesis of Jane Fonda and self-help/fitness culture more generally, Bauman writes:

Trying to straighten out other people’s crooked problems makes you dependent, and being dependent means giving hostages to fate – or, more precisely, the things you cannot master or people you cannot control; so mind your own business, and your own business only, with a clear conscience.  There is little to be gained from doing the job for others, and it would divert your attention from the job no one can do but you.  Such a message sounds sweet – as a much-needed reassurance, absolution and green light – to all those loners who are forced to follow, with or against their better judgment and not without pangs of conscience, Samuel Butler’s exhortation that ‘Pleasure after all is a safer guide than either right or duty.’

In short, to be sure the impulse for caring and attending is natural and valued; but even altruism is probably just another form of self-delusion in the end, and given the private nature of all one's peers, it's better to shut up and hide in a closet if you're feeling lousy about either yourself or the world; everyone expects it of you anyway, and nothing you do is going to change anybody's mind. 

I’ve been rolling on a particularly immobile depression for a couple of weeks straight now (sorry, no blogging when lame; major rule).  So Bauman is hitting home pretty hard.  And maybe it’s a sign of a (semi) healthy ability to laugh at oneself that I find myself taking a weirdly giddy delight in simultaneously cherishing Bauman’s nihilism and paradoxically Not Believing A Word Of It. 

I find myself asking, What’s so modern about this particular form of alienation?  My dissertation is on strangers not speaking to each other; I write about the eighteenth-century transformation from face-to-face gemeinschaft to the faceless society of familiar strangers in gesellschaft.  I have every reason to embrace any theory that gives me fodder for explicitly defining the coming of the nation state, the vast bureaucracy, the culture of narcissism. I have a stack of eighteenth-century transformations that all lead to various forms of isolation and acceptance of vast, social networks aimed at telling the individual how to behave, and then convincing the individual of his/her own responsibility for the costs. 

If anything, the information structures carrying home messages about the correct kind of behavior are modern: the consumer society, the self-help industry, the mass media, the nation state.  Indeed we may have more and better ways than ever before for assessing our own behavior; we have statistics, crowds, gurus.  We know not only how our neighbors and colleagues deal, but how anonymous millions deal; if we don’t know we can look up and find out exactly where we as individuals lie in the city-wide, national, and global age-brackets for our age, weight, and alcohol consumption.  If I have the smallest desire to compare myself with any of them, I can just as easily find myself competing against all of them.  And nothing would drive me back into the cave of my own conscience as surely and promptly as the threat of finding out that I am not doing so well and nothing can ever help me.  This particular form of social death is surely new. 

But I find myself asking what the individual looked like before.  What the melancholy of the medieval monastic or renaissance scholar had that was so different from the isolated trailer-park melancholy of the twenty-first century academic who wants to pound her face into her desk because she can neither defeat fascism out of doors nor overcome her neediness for human contact at home. 

What exactly is the epistemic status of this hyper-individualism?  Is it a genetic inheritance of the hunter-gatherer instinct of individual animals banded together in tribes?  Is it a theological relic of our long-term engagement as individuals in bodies with a society that bequeaths us our traditions, but which we can neither really know nor trust as a source of the ultimate Good (either for us or for others)? 

So I end up back in Greece (of course) ruminating on epics and the hero’s epic journey.  What made him so different?  We don’t think that the hero is necessarily happy, but we all honor him.  He doesn’t satisfy all of our values, but he embodies a majority of them in circumstances beyond the expectations and diversity of any historical experience. 

Of course the hero comes up against foreign lands and institutions (witches, nomads, lotus-eaters) with their own values; they may attempt to manipulate him or destroy him; they usually try at least to win him over to their way of thought.  The hero represents our values system, however, and we love him for somehow surviving.  Not conquering: just surviving. 

The modern hero is not so different from the hero of the ancient world.  The hero of most Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler novels alike is one part values to nine parts survivor: survivor of twisted harlots in the suburbs or borg-like social consciences and runaway killer machines.  All that’s new about modernity may be that we have more people telling us what to do, and less of a voice to talk back to them, and more of an opportunity to abdicate responsibility, than ever before. 

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